I really enjoyed reading the articles “Kikokushijo: returnees to a country not yet ready for them” and “Returnees’ experiences drive a will to give something back” [by Teru Clavel, Learning Curve, May 5 and 12].
I was born in Japan but moved to Nairobi, Kenya, when I was 3 months old. I spent my whole life in a British international school, until university, where I completed my bachelor’s in psychology at the University of York, U.K. I am currently doing my master’s in Munich, Germany. I never attended a Japanese school (aside for a few months of kindergarten) and so although my Japanese understanding is of native level, my reading and writing skills in Japanese are hardly sufficient.
My parents tried their best to instill Japanese customs and mentality in me, and they often read Japanese books to me as well as recorded Japanese shows and movies for me to watch in my free time, but they also gave me the space to really absorb the different cultures I was exposed to. My primary school class proudly represented students from 30 different countries, and my teachers were also from all over the world. I feel blessed to have had the experiences that I had, and consider myself a global citizen.
My parents knew that we would be based in Kenya for a very long time, and never pushed me to be Japanese. There were only about three to four Japanese families that resided in Kenya for longer than a three-to-five-year contract, meaning my contact with Japanese children was very limited. There was never anyone my age to play with.
When I would visit Japan for the school holidays, my mother would organise meet-ups with her friend’s children, but I realised very early on that I had very close to nothing in common with them. I remember my summer as an 8-year-old, being very bored, as none of the kids I was being told to play with understood anything I was talking about — not due to a lack of language, but mainly due to the fact that my knowledge of the issues around the world was much greater, and I couldn’t find joy in sitting indoors and playing on computer games all day.
My school year had consisted of fundraising with my classmates for charities involved in AIDS orphans, raising awareness about poverty and generally having a very diverse curriculum. The Japanese children my age could barely point to Africa, let alone Kenya. I felt isolated when I wasn’t able to chip in to conversations that were all about the latest game or the latest TV show.
All my family and adults that I would meet in Japan would commend me and praise me for being able to speak two languages fluently and already be learning my third language (French) at the age of 7, but those who were the same age would always treat me like an outsider. In my teens, other kids my age started to have an interest in my life, but the questions that they would ask me were often absurd and I would find myself feeling embarrassed for them. They would ask me questions like “Do you live in a tree?” “Do you eat tigers?” (There are no tigers in Africa!) to which my replies must have seemed so obvious and rude, but I was shocked to see that some people were very naive.
I have considered moving back to Japan, several times. The first time was when I was trying to decide where I would go to university. I soon realised that, with my language level, I would only be hindering my education and so I decided to go to the U.K. instead. I have considered moving back to Japan for work, but again, my insufficient levels of Japanese put me at a disadvantage.
What I am most frustrated about is the lack of support for kikokushijo. Foreign companies pounce on the opportunity to hire someone that has experience overseas and can communicate in several languages, but I find that Japanese companies are wasting a good opportunity. They are simply unable to effectively take advantage of people who could give so much back to the country. Japan is increasingly more accepting of foreigners, but having a Japanese face (and passport) means that we have to conform to the Japanese norms. Whether it be for a job, or for social life, there is just no place for us.
At the end of last year, I travelled to Japan for a few days. I was with a non-Japanese friend, and we went around Tokyo. It was my first experience in Tokyo, without my parents, so I was excited to see how I would be able to cope alone. What I experienced was rather disappointing, and it has made it quite clear to me that I’ll probably stay away from Japan for a while longer.
We got lost while trying to find a particular exit at a train station and so I went to ask a man who was at the information counter. He curtly but politely pointed to the direction and told me I would find it if I went that way.
That didn’t help us at all, as five minutes later we were still unable to find the right exit. So we went back to the counter and this time, I told my friend to go and ask for directions and I would stand away from them — I was curious to test out my theory.
Not only did the man walk out from behind his desk, but he gave my friend such detailed directions that I was left pretty annoyed. I can only imagine this was because my friend is a foreigner (though he’s lived in Japan longer than I have and can read and write better than me!). From then on, I stuck to pretending to be a foreigner and would always ask in English. People are so much friendlier that way.
I am admittedly quite bitter about this issue, not because I don’t like being Japanese or that I don’t get treated fairly, but because I feel as though I have been dismissed even before being given a chance.
I currently teach English to Japanese expats, and I’m appalled at their level of English. When I applied to jobs in the U.K. for a Japanese company, I was turned down as my Japanese was insufficient (even though the work was in the U.K., in English). If I worked for a big company, I would rather hire someone that is able to communicate competently, especially if they are representing the company in a foreign country. But it seems that even those with terrible English are still sent abroad for long-term contracts. Sometimes I wonder how these people are even able to order food, let alone negotiate a business deal.
I do hope that Japan will open its eyes to the opportunities that are slipping away. Though the articles quoted many students who were generally happy to be kikokushijo and were able to integrate back into Japan, I certainly feel that among my friends, there are many of us who are too scared or have lost hope of moving back.
Thank you again for your article. It really made me feel that I’m not alone, and that there are definitely people out there who are trying to help us integrate back into Japan. I feel heartened that there are many others in my situation and that there might be a brighter future for me back in Japan!
Shooting themselves in the foot
Having seen practically all sides of this issue save for being a kikokushijo myself, I’ve noticed several common recurring themes as to why kikokushijo have problems integrating into the workforce.
First, they overvalue and focus too much on their English/foreign language skills as well as overseas living experience. I can tell you that in 99 percent of the cases, these language skills, at least for new/recent grads, are a very minor aspect of the job. And coming in selling your languages is not only ineffective, its downright dangerous. Come in selling your overseas experience, especially in the wrong way and you aren’t getting the job.
Second, in terms of Japanese language ability, I’m surprised at the lack of training or guidance kikokushijo have had in preparing for interviews, often their lack of keigo [formal Japanese] usage (forgivable) or sometimes their refusal to use it. Often it seems they want to flaunt their outsider status. I’ve gotten feedback from clients in the past, such as, say, Dell that said, “He/She came into the interview like we were good friends, too casual Japanese language, etc.” Immediately out.
Third, there is a big issue from the domestic side that kikokushijo are too pushy, and way too soon. Again, this often stems from the kikokushijo relishing or appearing to relish outsider status, which to domestic Japanese seems like a form of cultural imperialism or gaiatsu [foreign pressure]. And believe me, I’m a doer, so I know the feeling, but I’ve seen kikoku roll into even places like PriceWaterhouseCoopers and think they are gonna change the place overnight. That doesn’t happen — anywhere — not even in the U.S., let alone Japan.
That said, with proper training of kikokushijo to understand these issues and some minor expectation-setting with the domestic firms, yes, kikokushijo would provide good value to Japanese firms — heck, when many gaishikei [foreign firms] first came to Japan in the ’70s and ’80s, they couldn’t get “pedigreed Japanese” workers, so they went for the kikokushijo that had the bilingual and bicultural skills.
Kids must be traumatized
I had a similar experience when we relocated to Italy after a 10-year spell in Quebec. I wasn’t totally fluent in Italian and spoke with a French accent. I was put back three times at school because I didn’t understand most of the lessons and the school culture was totally different to the Canadian one.
The [May 5] article seems to gloss over the fact that these kids are probably traumatised ( I know I was ) because of the cultural shock they have to go through: It’s not only about good grades and them being an “adaptable international citizen” or multicultural worker pawn to make businesses look good, but also the emotional upheavals they have to endure so that they can “fit in.”
Because of my bad experience, I’m left with emotional scars even to this day, always second-guessing myself and feeling I didn’t belong. Ironically, I found more acceptance and a feeling it was ok to be multicultural in a third country (the U.K.), where I’m currently residing.
View skewed toward the wealthy
The article [on May 5] was based on an extremely narrow case. Returnees who study at Keio Keio Shonan Fujisawa Junior and Senior High School and Shibuya Makuhari Shibuya Makuhari Senior and Junior High School are very few, and drawing out conclusions from these very scant samples is not only biased but is totally unrepresentative of the experiences of kikokushijo students.
Perhaps the author can give the percentage of the returnees who are studying in these institutions from the overall returnees in Japan? I’m pretty sure they are very few. They are very few because the kids who can get into these institutions in the first place are those whose parents are affluent enough.
Take Shizuoka, a prefecture where there are a lot of Brazilian, Filipino and Chinese returnees: By definition, they are also kikokushijo, but students with such backgrounds have a higher rate of not going to university and tend to integrate less well into society. Their condition is much more serious because although they came from abroad, they don’t have the resources they need to further their education or, for example, have a British accent when they speak their broken English.
The circumstances and environments that these wealthy children [mentioned in the article] experienced are relatively better. Talk to students in Shonan Fujisawa and Shibuya Makuhari and it might appear that all kikokushijo are well taken care of.
I suggest that you re-examine your subject and perhaps you can finally represent the circumstances of those who are in most need of help.
Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Pref.
Shunned and then exploited
How is it that a country like Japan with a globalized economy, a highly industrialized manufacturing base and a job market very dependent on export trade is not ready to fully accept the multicultural kikokushijo or school-age returnee? This must be one of the greatest cultural ironies in modern 21st-century Japan.
What, are these children “gaijin-tainted” and thus unable to fit in? Is the kikokushijo just a big “nail” that must be hammered down with a vengeance (as in the old Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks up . . .”)?
From what was stated in this article: “It seems there are pockets — their family accepts them for who they are, or they go to a school where they have friends who are returnees or who have studied abroad.” Is the kikokushijo looked upon as some kind of social leper? Is Chiba Prefecture’s Shibuya Makuhari, a school that specializes in assisting returnees, an isolated leper colony of sorts? I’m surprised that these “contaminated” returnees aren’t kept in “quarantine” for six months to make sure they aren’t carrying cross-cultural rabies.
What does [Oxford professor Roger] Goodman mean when he suggests that kikokushijo should be “taken advantage of” or that “the state should be mobilizing them far more efficiently,” as if these returnees are a sort of industrial production unit to be efficiently used by Japan Inc.?
First the kikokushijo is shunned and then exploited! Ah, life is not fair.
Ten false assumptions
There are a number of unfounded assumptions in both the article and comments. I’ve taught hundreds of kikokushijo at the university level over the past 10 years.
1) Kikokushijo do not necessarily have any native knowledge of English or any other foreign language if they attended Japanese schools overseas.
2) There are numerous special programs available for kikokushijo.
3) They get preferential admission to elite private universities.
4) I have yet to have a kikokushijo tell me that they were bent out of shape by the experience.
5) Journalistic articles tend to deal with a tiny number of exceptional cases both good and bad.
6) Journalistic articles are written by people who do not work with kikokushijo.
7) Kikokushijo almost without exception come from affluent families, with the result that one hears more about kikokushijo than their numbers warrant.
8) For Japanese employers, foreign nationals graduating from elite Japanese universities are probably a better bet than kikokushijo because: a) they have full native speaker competency in their own language; b) they have full native cultural knowledge of their own country; c) they typically have near native competency in Japanese; d) they have enough on the ball to get into and graduate from top Japanese universities as outsiders.
9) It is not unusual in my experience for Chinese, Korean and European students from non-English speaking countries to have better English (and sometimes Japanese) than kikokushijo.
10) The situation of contemporary kikokushijo is quite different from what is was in the late ’70s when this amorphous category first attracted attention.